A Blessing for Pilgrims for Indigenous Rights

Friends, I was asked to provide a blessing for some pilgrims walking from Kitchener to Ottawa in support of Bill C 262, which requests the implementation in Canada of the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for truth and reconciliation, as per the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report. This pilgrimage has been organized by the Mennonite Church Canada. My blessing followed upon a traditional sending by Myeengun Henry, an Ojibway elder in our city. The text for it follows:

God bless you in this journey of justice and peace.

May your feet feel each treaty
Holding you as you cross its reach,
Sustaining you as you walk in a good way.

May your ears be ready to hear
The stories sown in the territory you
Traverse step by step.

May your hearts beat in time with
Our Mother, the Earth
Who watches over you
In love, in delight.

May your minds be as one
In the community you are
On the way to truth and reconciliation.

And may you know

That your knowing is first being known.

And your loving is first being loved.

And your passion for justice and peace

Is first and finally God’s Reign in your midst.

God be above you, below you , behind you, beside you, before you and within you – as Holy Flame; as Sacred Word.

Public and Private Transit

I generally exercise at the Athletic Centre at the university where I work. I find fitness breaks really need to be convenient, or they are quickly sidelined by this pressing need or that persistent email. Having a gym ready at hand is so very helpful. An added bonus is that my weekday runs are on a treadmill, which I understand to be easier on the knees.

On the weekends, however, I like to do an outside run. It is really a rather different experience in that I use some alternate muscles when running on the ground. Yet other important differences obtain. I have to pay more attention as I run. Traffic patterns, and sidewalk and road hazards warrant attention, as well as the especial need to negotiate people who are travelling in the same direction as me.

Last Saturday I was running down Weber Street, and crossed Franklin, at which point I usually turn left and run a couple of blocks before ducking into a cemetery, a soothing stretch in my run. As I ran toward my intersection, I saw the light go green in my favour, with a walk light to boot. I looked ahead and saw a woman in the right (turning) lane coming toward me. I have learned that you want to ensure you make eye contact in such cases. She saw me, and I kept an eye on her as I sprinted across the street. She glared at me. I suspect it was because I was slowing down her turn. Unfortunately, I understand her impatience. I experience it when I drive.

There is something about getting in a car that ratchets up my hurry-up gene. I have told colleagues that when I drive to work, I arrive with my shoulders tight, my brain a little frazzled, and my blood pressure seemingly raised. But when I catch a ride, take the bus, or walk I arrive relaxed and ready to begin (or end) the day with more equanimity. I experience myself differently in a vehicle. I am often uptight, anxious and impatient – having experienced anything and everything in my way as a hazard and/or an annoyance. In the middle of winter, when I have to wait for pedestrians, I have to remind myself that I am safely ensconced in a few thousand pounds of protection that is temperature controlled, and the poor shmuck on the street is navigating puddles, or snow-banks, or howling winds with a few layers of protection. I have to remind myself that I can afford to take a deep breath and show a little kindness.

There have been news stories this last while about sidewalk-free neighbourhoods protesting the planned implementation of walk-friendly streets. At one level, I can understand this. Walkers can be erratic, and some are even in-your-face bold. But a refusal to address the fact that most of us will one day necessarily need to be able to walk to public transport seems naïve at best, and willfully belligerent at worst. This refusal, at a deeper level, bespeaks a deliberate rejection of empathy; an unwillingness to experience the street in the shoes of people on the street; knowing what it means to be the little guy in the fight.

Drivers, it might be said, are an individual manifestation of the cult of efficiency run amok. The person before me no longer represents a relationship to be negotiated, but a problem to be solved. Of course, I am really transferring my shallowness and impatience onto other drivers, whom I only know from a glance or two (or worse yet from no glances) in my direction. For all I know, their driving might be attributed to a hard hospital visit, or a troubling performance review, or a fight with their partner, etc. But then again, such factors are really an argument in favour of a broader access to public transit – an argument, alas, which may well fall on deaf ears since many of us, I think, prefer the private character of our cars to the “public” of public transit.

I suppose both the private car and the public transit represent seemingly innocent answers to the innocent question: how do we get around? But we cannot afford to ignore that this seemingly benign question is sometimes answered in a malign modality that shape us in ways unaware. At the end of the day, cars more often than not enforce a self-enclosed subject who engages his or her surroundings via the mediating power of a car, while a walker or jogger, or such has a more intimate relationship with her or his environs.

There may be a life lesson in this. I’ll leave that to others, but I want to make the simple observation that no one can opine on this increasing question with impunity. We all have some skin in the game. I, for the sake of the environment – which includes me, look forward to the day when buses and streetcars outnumber cars on our roads. In the interim, I’ll try hard to smile at passing motorists, and patiently wave walkers across the road.

5 O’clock Dark

Heading home, Friday last,
I passed the Salvation Army and
the street lamps did me the honour
of multiplying my shadow leaving me
variously iterated in black:
here short and squat, like a puddle at feet
there long, lean and sliding across the street
but ahead just right, properly proportioned
and cutting a sweet angle a little left of centre,
slightly smug until an ambulance navigating the traffic
rendered me red on Sally Ann’s wall –
each shadow dancing a life under
the aegis of an emergency’s brief
incursion – after which I stepped
off the curb and slipped across
the street into a stretch
of easy dark.

Some Kind of Walk

I am now a week back from walking the last third of the Northwest Mounted Police Trail. My wife and I walked about 110 km of a 300 plus km trail. The trail runs from Wood Mountain Park to Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills. It was established by the NWMP in order to keep the peace in an area frequented by “Wolvers” from south of the border in the late 19th century in what is now southern Saskatchewan. These folk were known by this name since they killed bison, poisoned the meat and then collected the hides of wolves who ate this. They ran a booze business on the side, selling to Native Americans who were in the midst of losing a way of life as the bison disappeared from the land, and as the Canadian government waited upon them to starve, until they finally agreed to sign treaties in a desperate attempt to find a way in this new reality. This patrol trail across the praire is wet with tears.

How is it that I found myself on this trail? My friend Matthew Anderson, a theologian and documentary producer invited me and my wife and we said yes. You can learn more about this at Matthew’s site. Matthew is a scholar of pilgrimage and was piqued by the observation that people who research pilgrimage often write and research European trails, but seemed little interested in North American sites. He grew up in southern Saskatchewan and so knew of this trail and of its significance. He thought it especially important to visit in light of the recent report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which speaks of the continuing need for First Nations and Settlers to work toward renewed relationships of truth, accountability, justice, and concern for the land.

I learned much on this walk. We arrived on a non-walk day. In the evening, the author Candace Savage spoke to us of the sad history of this place. I bought her book and asked her to sign it. She did and wrote “welcome home” above her signature. This was a bit odd, since I am not from Saskatchewan. I grew up in central Alberta, in what is called “parkland.” But as I walked across this bald prairie, replete with breath taking coulees, horizons that spoke of the Creator’s breadth of fierce mercy, and a sky that glistened with the stark clarity of a diamond, I found myself breathless. Every now and then I would stop, and look, and find myself with hands on my hips: just looking. It reminded me of my dad, raised on the prairies, who would do this from time to time on our farm. We would be on our way to look at the cows, or check the grain, or whatever, and he would stop – like a man with all the time in the world – and look to the horizon with hands on hips. And here I was, reprising his posture, a posture formed in his southern Alberta by like surroundings. And then Candace’s note rang true. This was a homecoming on foreign territory.

All territory is foreign to us. We experience it as a home-becoming when we walk it. Walking is a holy venture: prayer on feet trod with attention to the marvel and miracle walking is. Children who first learn to walk and people who have lost their ability to walk know so very well that walking is a wonder. Walking is wonder-ful. As I walked this trail I found myself over and over again. I saw myself in my fellow pilgrims who both looked forward to a day’s end while they wished it went on forever. I heard myself in the Swainson hawks who prayed us across the prairies. I sniffed out myself in the sweet sage that bore witness to hope on hard ground. I felt my skin as I caressed teepee ring rocks, reminders that this land that has adopted me is my elder, my mother. I tasted myself in fresh bread made by farmers who invited us in, with prairie hospitality. As an ancient sage noted: we are grains of wheat, crushed, wetted, fired and broken to become food for the hungry.

I have walked for a time. I have walked with others, with the land, and by myself. I am richer for it, and now wonder how to best invest what I have accrued from this time. I am confident that a pathway will open up, as pathways do: mysteriously.

IMG_2719 (1)

Thanks to Matthew Anderson for this photo!

More Squealing, Please

Yesterday, while walking to church, I passed some gentlemen from the local constabulary, who were on parade patrol.  They were dressed in the requisite neon yellow on black.  The sky was in a bit of a huff, blowing clouds to and fro, and so allowing slivers of sun to shine on my face.  My walk to church is north-westerly and, as you can imagine, more often into the wind than with it.  To this insult is added the injury of an uphill to church, with the result that the trip home is a bit ephemeral: being down hill with the wind to my back and the sun on my face.  All the same, I enjoy the walk to church as much as the walk home – but I digress.

 

Shortly after crossing the paths of Waterloo’s finest, I began to see the participants of the annual Downtown Mudpuppy Chase, with proceeds going to help out KidsAbility.  I had hardly crested the last hill before beginning the flat that precedes the slow climb to downtown proper when out of the corner of my ear I heard a familiar voice.  I glanced over and shouted, “Is that you, L?”  “Yes, I thought that looked like you,” said she, and so we walked together for a time.  The Chase began with a 3K walk for those who benefit from Kidsability’s important work with youth and their supporters.  I had opportunity to meet L’s son, M, who was in a chair and loving the walk.  Mom had a big smile on her face, as did M’s care worker who was out in support of the event.  L and I chatted as we walked, and at one point, M let out a big squeal.  “He loves the wind on his face,” said Mom.  I smiled, and we continued to visit in spite of the hard slug up the last bit of King before it meets Frederick, where I peeled off to the left to make my way to St. Matthews.

 

At church that morning, we were witnesses to the baptism of little H.  She was adorable – all squeaky clean in white and was so very good through all of the baptismal liturgy.  After the baptism proper H let out a squeal that brought forth both laughter, and to my mind, M’s bend into the wind.  I wondered, for a moment, if H was feeling a bit of that Holy Wind herself.  At any rate, these two not-wholly disparate events got me thinking.

 

Why don’t we squeal more?  Where is that primal voice at joy, or astonishment, or satisfaction?  Why is it so carefully filtered out?  Why do we worry so, about being proper when something that is life affirming and death defying catches us unaware?  Why can’t we just let it out?  At least a little?

 

I suppose, in a sense, this is a bit rich coming from me: who tends to conservatism in dress and aspires to propriety in demeanor.  But perhaps this last sentence begs the question: after all, what has dress got to do with it?  And why should we imagine that expressing joy isn’t proper? It seems, in some ways, that our burial of primal speech is an indication of our discomfort with our body.  We hide our skin, we hide our feelings, we hide our voices, our selves.

 

It seems to me that that that itinerant preacher who invited us to become like children if we want to enter the Reign of God was onto something.  Perhaps a little more squealing, and a little less squirming might go a long way to making the world a more hospitable place and so, much more real.

 

Meeting my Waterloo (Street)

This afternoon I went to the dentist, or rather, to the dental hygienist.  She was really very kind to me.  She gave me some floss and a new toothbrush, and after I paid my bill, and collected my things I began my trip home.  On the days I walk, I generally meander down King Street, which takes me through uptown Waterloo, and then across the twin city border, after which I mosey through downtown Kitchener, down Ottawa Street and then home.

 

But today I took a different route, since my normal path would have meant a significant amount of back-tracking.  So, instead, I walked against the one way traffic on Bridgeport, turned right on Moore Ave. N and then took a left onto Waterloo St, which winds through an interesting part of Kitchener that I usually only see from the car.  (These days, when I drive, I take Waterloo because the more popular Weber that I would normally take to work is under construction.  In fact, I have become rather fond of Waterloo, and have started taking it as a matter of course, but only on the way to work.  I tend to take a more convoluted route home. )

 

It was interesting, indeed satisfying, to walk down Waterloo.  You see a street differently when you walk what you normally drive.  The difference is doubled when walking in a contrary fashion.  Waterloo is a mostly straight street connecting, in earlier days, the not yet twin cities.  The street is now flanked by houses from the early twentieth century, brick in the main that are more often yellow than red.  Every now and then you see a house hinting at the German provenance of its builder – the odd flourish reminding me of Black Forest sensibilities.  The ethnicity of the area changes with the times, and the one house that I have taken note of while driving boasts an Italian flag above its grape vine arbor.  In the summer the home vaunts a lovely canopy of green, but in this in-between time, when the earth is hardly clothed, the yard looks vulnerable.  Walking, I noticed a dog-run on the side of the house that came right up to the street.  I wondered it this canine sideline successfully keeps raccoons at bay in the fall.

 

Not far from the yard-come-vineyard is a new home being built, full of sharp angles and strangely placed windows.  I must say I was rather taken by it, taken in by it until the walk along Waterloo dropped me off just shy of the Kaufmann lofts: a once beehive of factory activity making the famous Kaufmann boots.  We would buy these out West, not imagining that one day the factory floor of this profitable business would host halls leading to domestic spaces.  I crossed the Kaufmann parking lot and made my way onto Duke, where I saw down town Kitchener in various states of gentrification, modernization, and obfuscation: a city finding itself.

 

South of downtown I slipped past Kitchener’s Farmers Market, being guarded in its off hours by the Korean Presbyterian Church and the Kitchener Waterloo Racket Club.  Krug carried me to Weber, and I split off at Sterling, which left me at the edge of Sheppard School, where my children attended so many years ago.  I wistfully traversed the playground, a little sad that those days are behind, but proud of my three darling daughters that have never looked back.

 

From there, the way walked me home just as I used to walk my children home, and a kind of peace settled into my feet, my soul.

Keeping in Step

We have had something of a roller coaster ride for weather in southwestern Ontario these last weeks. Record colds followed by record warms followed by snow followed by rain and then back into the deep freeze again. Add an ice storm, stir, and presto! You have a mess for commuters.

I am a commuter, but I try to commute by car as little as possible. There are days when work demands I drive, but otherwise, my goal is to ride a bus in the morning and walk home. This last week, on one of my bus days I bumped into my neighbour at the bus stop and we chatted all the way to work, catching up on family, and work, and holiday news. He is planning a trip to Holland in April, and so I had opportunity to experience tulips avant le temps vicariously.

While walking through downtown Kitchener on the way home a week ago last Friday, I unexpectedly bumped into a friend I see from time to time at First Nations events. We stopped and chatted for a time, and then as I began to walk, she wandered along with me. Eventually our paths reached the point wherein they were to part, but we both stood and visited, watching the walk light change to stop and back to walk again, and around and around a number of times.

These are the delights of my daily commute. These are the treasures a car doesn’t afford me on those days demanding auto-mobility. Strange, that phrase “automobile.” To be mobile is to be on the move, and the word “auto” comes to us from Greek and means “self.” I’m really only auto-mobile on my feet. In the car I’m really rather car-mobile. But even on those days leaving me to be truly auto-mobile, the friends I meet, the buildings that pull my eye up and out, the sky that stops me in my tracks, the trees that wave; all of these sojourners with me remind me that I never walk alone. I never truly walk auto.

The bible speaks of a cloud of witnesses cheering us on in our life of faith. We Christians tend to imagine that cloud to consist of those who have passed on in the faith – and for good purpose. I suspect that this is precisely what the author of the book of Hebrews had in mind.

All the same, I have to say that these chance encounters with the many “characters” that constitute the narrative of the street often cheer me along. In sum, I am never auto-mobile, nor do I find myself to be on “auto-pilot.” Others cheer, and this carriage I call me-in-my-entirety is driven by forces beyond my control even while I take control.

All in all, it is a gift to walk; it is a gift to wonder while on feet. I find that it doesn’t take too many steps for the cares of the day to wear away and creativity to come, and then, when I have ears to hear, cheers erupt from glistening frost, from crunching snow, from traffic signal parting the stream of traffic. Some of us have to drive, that I know, but hopefully even such as these can find a way to take a breath before and after and even in the midst of the day’s commute.